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Mr. Canoe

Ralph FreseAt the beginning of the film, Mr. Canoe, we hear the voice of Ralph Frese over images of re-enactors dressed in traditional Voyageur explorer outfits, paddling in replica Native American birch bark canoes:

“The canoe is the only trail that take us through nature without leaving a trace of our passing.”

The statement is both iconic and ironic in respect to Mr. Frese, as he left much more than a trace after his passing. Indeed, his legacy left an indelible impression on all who truly knew him.

In November of 2012, Octane Rich Media (www.octanerichmedia.com) began filming a documentary about Mr. Frese, the Chicagoland Canoe Base that he founded, and his intriguing band of devout followers. Less than a few weeks after endeavoring to tell the tale of Ralph Frese, he passed away. The filmmakers began a four year odyssey to interview the people whose lives he touched and influenced, including the adventurers and explorers inspired by Ralph Frese to undertake the longest, most arduous canoe journeys in over three hundred years: The twentieth century re-enactments of the Joliet Marquette and the LaSalle Expeditions, traversing waters from Montreal, through the Great Lakes, and through the heart of the country via the mighty Mississippi.

James Forni, the Director and Executive Producer, and Joshua Jones, the Director of Photography and Editor of the film, combed through archive materials, films, radio and television interviews spanning a half century to craft the complex portrait of one of Chicago’s most interesting and influential citizens. A key piece of the archive involved carefully restoring the 16mm film from the 1973 Joliet Marquette Expedition. We learn that Ralph was both inspiration to fellow paddlers and a superb craftsmen, one of the last blacksmiths in Chicago, an ardent historian, and passionate environmentalist. While the title of Mr. Canoe was originally and rightfully the sobriquet attributed to Ralph Frese, it also became evident that the name belonged to his proteges as they have carried forth his traditions, like the portages they shared with Ralph over the decades.

One of the central stories explored in the film is the LaSalle Expedition – referred to as LaSalle Expedition II. Inspired by the bicentennial celebration, it was the only historical re-enactment traversing both Canada and the United States in 1976. A crew of roughly twenty men canoed and portaged 3,300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico in 34-foot canoes and handmade clothing, with little modern equipment, in a Tricentennial re-enactment of LaSalle’s 1676 Expedition through the United States. We discover that the nine-month expedition was funded by a group of donors who raised a significant amount of money for the challenging and resource-draining trip, long before the advent of crowd funding.

The crew was supported by a team of dozens of on-land coordinators as they touched the lives of thousands, making stops along the rivers at towns and major cities to give educational presentations, sing French Voyageur songs, and spread a message of conservation, while teaching the public about the American Midwest’s often forgotten, or ignored, French history. While the crew had support along the way, the voyage occurred purely due to the perseverance of the re-enactors, paddling down Americas’s rivers and streams, hauling canoes across a frozen South Bend, Indiana, during one of the worst winters of the 20th century. The feat and journey to an outsider, which all of the men on the voyage once were, seems ludicrous. Who possibly could have convinced two dozen men to put their lives on hold for months to attempt something so difficult, dangerous, and seemingly impossible? A canoe maker from Chicago named Ralph Frese.

A generation after the expedition, the cast of unique characters speak about their memories of the trip with

remarkable vividness and insight into how our country views its history and environment. To the uninitiated, the extensive historic celebrations shown in the film at Fort De Chartres in Illinois, and the Feast of the Hunter’s Moon on the Wabash River in Indiana, will be a revelation.

The story of Ralph references how once a boy, who loved nature and happened to take an interest in boats, became an undisputed authority on all things canoes, including their astonishing place in the history of North America, both before and after the arrival of European settlers. A third generation blacksmith, Ralph eventually converted part of his father’s blacksmith shop into a place to build and forge canoes. With the deeply felt belief that a canoe is the finest way to experience the wilderness, Frese pursued re-creating Indian birchbark canoes and the canoes of the French Voyageurs. In many ways an entirely self-educated man, Frese cultivated an archive of French Voyageur artifacts, a library of information about canoes and their history, and fed an obsession with the Midwest’s under-represented French influence. We discover through the film that though he was argumentative, meticulous, and in his later years a bit of a curmudgeon, he was always an instigator and with a well-earned reputation for getting people to do what they would never do otherwise, things they would have never thought themselves capable of doing.

Many of the endearing scenes surround the witnessing of the many tributes to him: from Alderman Tim Cullerton’s official posthumous dedication of the Honorary Ralph Frese Way on the property of the Chicagoland Canoe Base, to the thousands of people who showed up to participate in the Des Plaines River Marathon, a race he created, the year after his passing, and the donation of his unique, historical archives to the newly founded Chicago Maritime Museum in Chicago’s Bridgeport community.

Mr. Canoe is, finally, a study in pursuing your passion and a glimpse into how the delight of a life-long obsession can inspire others from different walks of life to follow a dream. The Mr. Canoe documentary feature film is set to release in the spring of 2017 from production company Octane Rich Media and its recently formed film studio: Octango Films. Details on festival screenings and DVDs will become available next year.

The filmmakers are soliciting Ralph Frese memories and materials.  Click here to learn how to contribute.

Ralph Frese
Ralph Frese at Chicagoland Canoe Base, November 2012
Chicagoland Canoe Base, 2012
Chicagoland Canoe Base, 2012
Chicagoland Canoe Base, 2012
From Left to Right: Reid Lewis, Rich Green, Bill Derrah filmed at the Fort Des Chartres Rendezvous 2014 for the upcoming feature documentary Mr. Canoe
Photo from the 1976 LaSalle Expedition II
Illustration: Engraving of Pipe Smoking Voyageur from the feature documentary Mr. Canoe
Bill Derrah and Rich Gross, featured interview subjects from Mr. Canoe
The Feast of the Hunter’s Moon Celebration, 2014

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